Two Islands and Two Turtles

Thursday, April 15, 2010

It was early in the morning when we were roused from our sleep to embark on the next adventure. We were anchored in Sullivan Bay off the coast of Santiago Island with its sprawling black landscape punctuated by mounds of crushed red rock glowing in the morning sun. To get onto the lava before the day got too hot we were delaying breakfast and setting out at 6 AM in the zodiacs. True to Albarro’s word, the lava rocks were already warm and our walk took us along many different patterns created when the lava had cooled some time ago. The islands are formed from a volcanic hotspot as the tectonic plate moves southeast to slip beneath the continental one, which means that the islands in the northwest, like this one, are among the youngest in the Galapagos. That is one of the reasons there is so much diversity in landscape from island to island. It was a really nice walk first thing in the morning but to be honest there’s not much to discuss except for volcanic rocks in shades of black, red, and sometime yellow and numerous crevasses and cracks from when the lava cooled. We saw no life except a few plants struggling to break down the rock into soil for other less hardy plants to follow and a few lava lizards here and there. From the latter of the two, which is to say from there, it was back to the boat for breakfast and then we set out on the pangas (zodiacs/dinghys/etc) to do a cruise or nearby Bartolome Island which was a satellite eruption from the Santiago volcano.

Bartolome is a much smaller island which makes it all the more ironic that it was far more fascinating. Most of it is ash and thus life has taken a much firmer hold than on its larger neighbour. There are two beaches, one of which is a turtle-nesting zone and the other habituated by sea lions and Galapagos Penguins. Also, the hard dome around the volcano has mostly eroded but there is one section, called the pinnacle, which is stubbornly clinging to life at a precarious angle. From Santiago its silhouette looks like something out of the British version of Planet of the Apes: the silhouette of Big Ben juts out of the beach like a crooked finger dooming humanity. We took our panga tour and got nice and close to some penguins then headed up to the top of the mountain to see the famous panoramic views of the island below us. Its shape reminded me of a smaller version of Ko Phi Phi in Thailand – two beaches in a narrow strip connecting a smaller mound with the larger mountain we were now standing on. We descended and made our way to one beach and snorkelled around the island to the other side in what has to be one of the best snorkels I have ever done. There were sharks, rays, sea lions, coronet fish, puffers, angel fish, and more with visibility so good as to be criminal in most of North America. I can’t describe it well enough to do the snorkelling justice but suffice it to say that by this point a day without a snorkel would seem even more criminal than the visibility.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what the next day, Thursday, held for us. Wednesday afternoon had been spent relaxing on the boat’s upper deck and cruising around Santa Cruz (no pun intended) looking for dolphins, whales, or manta rays while soaking in the sun with a cool beer. Right, like I was going to find a manta ray that easily after all my prior efforts. It was a great day overall (without any of the previously mentioned spectacles) capped with a few more beer in Puerto Ayora with the Israelis and Delphine along for the ride. Thursday was the last day for most of the boat’s passengers: the Swedes, the French, and the Polish were going, leaving just us and the Israelis to continue on until next Monday. The morning was spent at the Charles Darwin Station where they help the sea turtles to breed in a mostly successful effort to regenerate them after we nearly wiped them out. There is one turtle, named Lonesome George, who has not been so lucky however: as far as is known he is the last turtle of his kind from one of the smaller islands and they have had no luck in trying to breed him. Hence the lonesome part, I guess. We did get to see him walking around which, for a turtle of his bulk and age, is pretty impressive. His legs are like elephant trunks and you half expect the ground to shake when he takes a step except that the steps are so slow and ponderous that you’re not even sure you saw him move. Then we said goodbye to everyone, including, unfortunately, our guide Albarro, and had some ‘free time’ in Puerto Ayora before lunch and the arrival of the new passengers.

The new passengers showed some promise. We had two Swiss couples and a lone Swiss guy, an Aussie guy, a New Zealand girl, a German guy, two Polish girls (I’m surprised by the number of Polish here), and two Ecuadorian girls, making the boat full with 16 in total. Our new guide, Enrique, also arrived and he didn’t take long to make us miss Albarro. He’s very very nice, which is, well, nice, but as a guide you need to be a bit more loud/vocal and a bit more of a leader where he seemed more apt to sway in the breeze. When the Polish girls heard the plan for the next day and discovered that breakfast was at 7 AM they almost succeeded in pushing it back (at the expense of the morning activity) with a few half-joking complaints. He also didn’t really lay out the way the boat works or the rules very loudly or clearly which would cause some problems in the next few days with the new passengers. We went that afternoon to do a “highlands” tour of Santa Cruz which was essentially a waste of time, though no fault to our guide there. We went up in a bus to a farmer’s field and walked in the mud whereupon we saw two of the same large turtles we’d seen in the Charles Darwin station. The highlight were two hollowed out giant turtle shells that you could crawl into, put it that way. From there it was to the lava tubes that was a giant tunnel. It’s impressive to think how much magma must have been flowing in this pipe and I’m still not entirely clear what mechanism caused it to be hollowed out in spite of asking Enrique twice, but that’s what the internet is for. When I get back to it. So it wasn’t a promising first day with the new guide but the group seems cool and we have a much more exciting day planned for tomorrow.

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